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IMS Fine-Tunes Track Conversion Plan For Kroger Super Weekend At The Brickyard

While the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard is designed to attract race fans and “Gear Heads” from sports car racing to NASCAR, it’s an action-packed weekend in more ways than one.

While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” – the Indianapolis 500 – what will take place on consecutive nights may be the “Greatest Spectacle in Construction.”

The real show may be sticking around to watch the conversation take place under portable spotlights with the sound of cranes and heavy equipment replacing the thundering sound of racing engines as construction crews convert the 2.5-mile oval to a 2.605-mile, 13-turn road course twice in a two-day period.

“People are going to see the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a whole new light,” said Mel Harder, senior vice president of operations of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “There will be over 250 transporters related to racing here, and to bring in all the displays and merchandise it will be very interesting. Wednesday will be a big day when we load everything in. That will be as intensive a schedule that day as the race weekend will be.”

The challenge for the track conversion is up to Harder and his facilities crew that will have plenty of work to do in a limited period of time. But Harder believes his staff is up for the challenge.

“It’s a huge challenge for our staff but one we have taken the last 12 months since the announcement we have been working on,” Harder said. “We made some permanent changes before the Indianapolis 500 that are actually in place to continue to simplify what we are doing. We’ve made permanent changes to how we set up the oval track, which can also simplify the road course. From there we have simplified the road course setup by making panels that will replace the fencing system that can make the change much quicker. The fence panels are like door handles that will open up and erect very quickly. We are more efficient how we are going to set up the oval on the road course and how we use those fence panels and barriers. Then we are looking at the procedure going into the weekend – fine-tuning the details with the crews and how long it takes to move barriers, how long it takes to do the math from there and how to scale it. That will determine how many people, how many cranes we need to do the job.

“Concrete barriers we are moving, fence panels we are moving and tires are the three main things we need to do to make the conversion.”

This ambitious effort will require miles of fencing, extra equipment and a tremendous amount of manpower.

“Those are the things that we are fine-tuning at this point,” Harder explained. “If I threw out a number right now I’m not sure it would make sense. What we are trying to do right now is scale it. Once we have the final numbers onto how long it takes to move the barrier and tires we will scale it accordingly. There will be extra equipment brought in, cranes brought in, tractor trailers to haul tires and store tires, concrete blocks. Certainly, Thursday night and Friday night this place will come to life with activity. I’m hoping to have some numbers in the next few weeks, but we are waiting for the GRAND-AM test to make sure we hit all of our points and final adjustments to go into the final weekend.

“We learn that every year and we push ourselves and pride ourselves in evolving the facility and meeting our fan’s expectations. We make changes on and off the track, but the years of experience that our staff has allows us the ability to do these things. There are many dedicated employees with a lot of years of experience and that goes a long way when we have a project like this.”

The challenge would be different if the conversion was being made just once. For instance, if the GRAND-AM race were on Thursday followed by Nationwide and Cup practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday, the change would be simple. But in order to give the race fans three-days of actual racing, IMS officials went to the current schedule that will place plenty of demands on getting it done twice.

“It would have been easier to do a schedule like that and work within one move,” Harder admitted. “Unfortunately, there is only so much daylight and we are pushing the daylight to how much time is available to run Nationwide and the Cup cars and qualifying in the same day, and the Nationwide race. It was going to be a compromise either way and we chose a way that would be best for the competitors and the fans as well. The biggest challenge will be for the GRAND-AM guys who will only be here one day. It will be a challenge for them to practice, qualify and race in one day. It will be a tight schedule for them. That is why we are having a test for them. We want to make sure we put on a good show.”

And Harder’s boss has confidence that the crew can get a lot of work done in a short period of time.

“There will be non-stop track activity starting in 2012 with GRAND-AM, NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” said Jeff Belskus, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and chief executive officer. “It’s four races in three days at one track and two on Friday on the road course, with Nationwide on Friday and Sprint Cup on Sunday. The big deal to us will be the track conversion.”

The NASCAR Nationwide Series will make its IMS debut this year and will have practice on Thursday with the oval configuration. On Thursday night, the track will be converted to the road course layout with GRAND-AM and the Continental Cup Series competing all day Friday. Later that night, the track will be converted back to the oval configuration when NASCAR takes over for Saturday and Sunday.

“We have never done a conversion that quickly before,” Belskus said. “We have 12 hours in each of those time spans to do this. We are only moving the stuff we have to move. We are not moving everything so it won’t be a complete conversion.

“The other interesting thing is with logistics we will have 250 transporters on our grounds on Friday. For this event we are used to about 50 so it is five times the level of transporters to park. We have a great facilities team and staff led by Kevin Forbes and Mel Harder and others on the team thinking about what parts we have to move to get this to work. They have a good plan and are confident they can pull it off.”

Belskus calls this the ultimate learning experience. Jim France of GRAND-AM Racing told Belskus that the conversion at Daytona International Speedway can be made in less than one hour. Of course, that 2.5-mile oval is laid out differently than the older, tighter conditions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

While Daytona has had nearly 50 years of experience at changing its track from oval to road course it’s a relatively new scenario for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Its first road course contest was the 2000 United States Grand Prix Formula One race. After F1 left following the 2007 season MotoGP competed on a different road course that includes the Turn 1 infield area of the track.

“Certainly every time we do this we gain more experience and we continue to evolve,” Harder said. “From the first time we set up the Formula One track we had nearly two months to do it. Then we moved the race into June and had 2-1/2 weeks to do it. Then when we went to MotoGP we learned a few things and made a few changes so we continue to utilize our experience to improve. This next jump getting to 12 hours will be a huge gain for us.

“Someday, can we do it in less time than that? It is conceivable. We will continue to push that envelope, but right now we are focused on what we have to do for this event. It will be a huge challenge. Our facility is unique and very challenging to work around these two events. Whether we will see the oval track and road course utilized in the same day I’m not sure we are there yet, but looking forward to the challenge ahead.”

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